Otto Eisenschiml (1880-1963) was an Austrian chemist
who is most well-known for authoring the book Why Was Lincoln Murdered
(published in 1937). The book, which as a work of historiography was attacked and denigrated by professional historians, puts forth a controversial and provocative conspiracy theory
regarding the assassination of Abraham Lincoln
. In short, Eisenschiml argues that Lincoln's death at Ford's Theatre
was the product of a conspiracy by Lincoln's Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton
, who was the head of the "radical" clique of Republican
leadership. Eisenschiml suggests that Stanton's motive was Lincoln's unwillingness to impose harsh penalties on the Confederate
states (which Lincoln opposed in the interest of preserving the Union and creating a lasting peace in the wake of the Civil War
, rather than further animosity and a deeper schism between the north and the south).
Following his graduation from the Polytechnic School of Vienna
in 1901, Eisenschiml moved to America, working in Pittsburgh
before becoming president of the Scientific Oil Compounding Company. After becoming wealthy, Eisenschiml gave up his position to pursue his lifelong interest in American history.
Eisenschiml's father, a naturalized American citizen who had fought in the Civil War, had long nurtured his son's interests in the annals of the conflict. After emigrating to America, Eisenschiml made it a point to visit sites of great battles "before paved roads and peanut stands turned their hallowed soil into picnic grounds." But his great interest was in the assassination of Lincoln, which he approached with what he described as "a chemist's mind", saying "I suffer from an inborn vice of asking questions, a vice which is the birthright of every chemist, and should be that of every historian, but rarely is."
Eisenschiml was unable to accept to the traditional historical explanations of the Lincoln assassination—as a result of either a botched "simple conspiracy" between John Wilkes Booth
, David Herold
, George Atzerodt
, John Surratt
and Louis Paine
(and in the eyes of the military tribunal which tried the surviving conspirators, Samuel Mudd
, Edmund Spangler
, Michael O'Laughlen
and Mary Surratt
as well) or a "grand conspiracy" implicating the highest echelons of the Confederate government, with Booth acting on orders from Jefferson Davis
himself. One question continued to perplex Eisenschiml: why had Ulysses S. Grant
first agreed and then later declined Lincoln's invitation to the performance of Our American Cousin
at Ford's Theatre? Eisenschiml argued that Grant's tenacious personal staff would've made any attempt on Lincoln's life impossible had they been with the President in the theatre. Eisenschiml came to the ultimate conclusion that there could be only one reason for Grant's decline of the invitation: he had been ordered to do so.
The only individual in the American government who could order General Grant (aside from Lincoln) was Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Eisenschiml discovered that two clerks in the War Department
did report that Stanton had given an "implied order" for Grant not to accompany Lincoln to the play. As he and his research staff delved further into the event, Eisenschiml discovered a battery of evidence which seemed to support a grander conspiracy than had ever been imagined regarding Lincoln's death: a suspicious two-hour telegraph
failure in Washington
at the same time as the assassination, the fact that every route out of the capital had been blocked under Stanton's orders except the one taken by Booth and Herold, the fact that Booth was shot by a Union soldier against orders rather than taken alive (and that the soldier who'd fired was supposedly never punished), and the measures taken to ensure the silence of the captured conspirators (including transporting them to an island off the Florida coast and forcing them to wear canvas bags over their heads).
For Eisenschiml, all these factors pointed to conspiracy: Stanton had ordered Grant not to accompany Lincoln to the theatre, ensured that Lincoln's bodyguard was grossly incompetent, left one road south to the Potomac
and Port Tobacco
open, made no inquiry into the possibility of treason in the telegraph corps following the disturbance, provided an unreliable photograph of Booth to the soldiers charged with finding him (actually a photo of his brother, Edwin S. Booth
), ensured that Booth's shooter was never punished, and made certain that none of Booth's co-conspirators would be able to provide their account of the assassination either.
Why had Stanton done these things; why was Lincoln murdered? Eisenschiml had an answer for that question as well. Being a member of the "Radical" branch of the Republican abolitionists
, Stanton had an interest in prolonging the conflict and deepening the animosity between the north and the south, ensuring that the peace ultimately written would be vengeful and punitive towards the Confederate states. And once the war was over, the individual who was seen as responsible for the Union victory would likely be elevated to the highest governmental position possible--and that individual would be Stanton, who would then command the vast army created over the course of the war.
why Lincoln was murdered, according to Eisenschiml.
When it was initially published in 1937, Why Was Lincoln Murdered
drew ire from professional historians and was roundly condemned as a distortion of the facts. This is because, for the most part, that's exactly what it is.
It's true that Stanton discouraged Grant from accompanying Lincoln to Ford's Theatre. It's also true (and not mentioned by Eisenschiml) that Stanton discouraged Lincoln
from going. The President had been essentially living under constant threat of assassination since he was was first elected in 1860, alienating southerners who saw his election as the result of a sectional split in the Union that threatened to destroy the southern way of life. Stanton and the rest of the cabinet were well aware of this, and tried (often and ultimately in vain) to protect the fatalistic Lincoln from his numerous enemies. Stanton's discouragement of Grant is properly understood in its context as part of a plea for Lincoln not to make himself vulnerable to attack following the fall of Richmond
and the collapse of the Confederate government, as well as Lincoln's announcement of enfranchisement for black soldiers who'd served in the Union army and the "most intelligent" of freed blacks.
Why wasn't John F. Parker
, Lincoln's bodyguard the night of April 14th, not punished for his failure to protect the President? Parker was tried in May of 1865 and the charges against him were dropped a month later; there is no record of the trial. James O. Hall has noted that it's entirely possible, given Lincoln's tendency to disregard the dire warnings of his cabinet regarding assassination, that the President ordered Parker to sit down and watch Our American Cousin
Stanton had not closed the road south to the Potomac due to the fact that there was no telegraph station there and as such no way of delivering word from Washington. Stanton did inform the nearest station (at St. Inigoes, Maryland
) that Booth may attempt to cross the river. Additionally, it's understandable that Stanton may have doubted Booth would flee south into territory that was at the time occupied by the Union army following the Confederacy's exodus from Richmond, which by that point was only a symbolic capital.
Eisenschiml's "bizarre incident" of telegraph failure had little to no effect on Stanton's actions, due to the fact that War Department had its own telegraph lines which were unaffected. As such, there was no need for a formal investigation into the possibility of treason.
It is true that the soldiers charged with Booth's capture were shown a picture of Edwin Booth rather than John Wilkes. However, this same picture was presented at the conspiracy trial to Booth's collaborators; it was likely a genuine error since the photographs could've easily been switched by that point. Additionally, the "Wanted" posters made up by the War Department (actually the first such posters ever to feature photographs) had an accurate photograph of Booth on them.
Eisenschiml attempts to establish that the soldier blamed for Booth's death, Boston Corbett
, didn't actually fire into the barn at Bowling Green
and that instead it was Everton Conger
who slew Booth. But the testimony of the three officers involved (Edward P. Doherty
being the third) all suggests that Conger left Booth in the captivity of the others while he left his side to try and douse the fire engulfing the barn—hardly the behavior expected from a member of a conspiracy dedicated to silencing Booth.
While those implicated in the conspiracy where transported to an offshore prisoner and masked, they were also given every opportunity to talk: they were questioned by the police and represented by counsel at trial, and capable of spilling the beans to the guards and inmates of the prison at the Dry Tortugas
. John Surratt, whose mother was executed by the military tribunal and who ultimately had the charges against him droped, certainly could've revealed the conspiracy: he lived until 1916. Perhaps most convincingly, if Stanton had really wanted to silence the co-conspirators, it's likely he would've had them killed on sight as he supposedly did Booth.
Towards the end of Why Was Lincoln Murdered
, Eisenschiml concedes the instability of his charges: "There is not one point in this summary that can be proven; it is all hypothesis. . . . In view of all facts known at this time, an indictment against Stanton cannot be sustained for lack of material evidence."
As William E. Baringer wrote in a 1938 review of Eisenschiml's book for The Journal of Southern History
, "The long, rubbery arm of historical possibility is stretched until it is made to cover an ocean of conflicting fact."
Hanchett, William. The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies
. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.
Baringer, William E. "Why Was Lincoln Murdered by Otto Eisenschiml" (book review). In The Journal of Southern History
, Vol. 4, No. 1. (Feb., 1938). Available on http://www.jstor.org.